Beatty Brothers firm of Fergus reached its apex in 1929

A couple of weeks ago this column described some of the fire fighting measures taken by the Beatty Brothers firm of Fergus in the 1920s, and particularly in 1929.

That was a very good year for the firm, and enhanced firefighting was only one major initiative that year.

From bankruptcy in the 1890s and struggles in the years after 1900, the firm had grown to become a major industry, not just by Fergus standards but by the measure of Canada. In 1900 the major products were farm implements. In the 1920s there was still some farm equipment in the catalogue, notably stabling and litter carriers, but the main focus of the firm had switched to household appliances.

One of the initiatives of the Fergus head office in the 1920s was the annual convention of salesmen. In 1929 it was held the first week of September. The convention that year was the largest ever, attracting some 142 commission salesmen and store managers from the chain of retail stores that Beattys had opened across Canada.

The company viewed the convention as a training function for its salesmen, but it had other purposes as well. The company wanted the men to feel that they were on a sort of vacation, so there was much entertainment in the program. Only those who had met their sales quota for the year were invited. The Beattys wanted an invitation to the session to be a desired reward for effort and initiative.

As well, the convention was a chance for the men to meet one another and exchange techniques and tips. The sessions were set up for all attendees on the first two days. The commission salesmen then left, leaving about 70 men for another two days in Fergus.

On the first night the entertainment, staged in the cafeteria of the Hill Street plant, included a lunch. The entertainment was provided by a couple of salesmen from Hamilton who were very active in amateur theatrics, and had previously been members of a professional theatre company. Their program was of such quality that they were convinced to repeat it the next night on the stage of the new Grand Theatre downtown for the amusement of the general public.

There were entertainment programs for the sales force again on the following two nights, along with some talks by what would today be called motivational speakers. As well, the company set up baseball games each night for the men. As a break at noon, between the more serious business development sessions, there were games of horseshoes and quoits, an older game involving the tossing of rings from a distance to a peg.

The convention partially backfired on the firm. As part of their policy to enforce prohibition, the Beatty brothers had purchased and closed down all the hotels in town. Efforts to convince employees to billet the men were less than successful. Consequently, a number of them stayed at the Iroquois Hotel in Elora and at hotels in Guelph.

The regular convention was largely restricted to those men who had met their sales quota. The number attending in 1929 is an indication that sales that year were brisk and the Beatty factories were busy.

On Nov. 1 of 1929 two bus loads of salesmen, travelling on the largest buses ever seen in the town, arrived in Fergus. The men were in good spirits and enjoyed tours of both factories and visits to the basket factory and the new Beatty demonstration farm. At noon they ate a chicken dinner served by the company at the main plant cafeteria. The visitors spent the afternoon playing a game of baseball, which had to be relocated indoors to the Fergus arena on account of rain.

The model farm visited by the Beatty salesmen was a new company initiative that year. It was located on Garafraxa Street West, across the street from the rear of the Hill Street plant.

The company constructed a modern barn on the farm, fully equipped, of course, with the latest Beatty barn equipment. The company purchased a herd of 22 Jersey cows, and set up the facility to show the most modern way to house and manage a dairy herd.

The visiting salesmen on Nov. 1 saw that further additions to the farm were under construction. There was a new two-storey dairy building measuring 20 by 40 feet. In that building were a small creamery, featuring a boiler and steam sterilizing equipment, bottling equipment, and an electric refrigerator to cool the milk. The company planned to sell the milk on the local market, though plans for that in late 1929 were still indefinite.

Feed in the barn would be strictly measured. Feed was stored in a silo, 14 feet by 45 feet high, with weighing equipment. With all this equipment and the new techniques, the Beatty company anticipated developments that would not become general for another 30 years.

The company planned the demonstration as a sales tool, offering potential customers the opportunity to see the latest Beatty equipment in use before buying it.

The firm also purchased a second property, known as the Davidson farm, on Highway 6 at the northern edge of the town. Because that property was poorly drained, the company installed 70,000 drainage tiles on it, with plans developed by the Agricultural College at Guelph.

Altogether, the firm had 170 acres that could be cultivated using the most up-to-date techniques and machinery built by themselves, to serve as a demonstration for the latest equipment and techniques of farming.

The feeling of optimism and achievement exhibited by the firm would not last. W.G. and Milton Beatty tended to be micro-managers, with fingers on everything that happened in the office and in the plants.

By 1929, with two big factories in Fergus and a chain of other plants, distribution warehouses and sales offices across the country, that had become impossible. It became necessary to add layers of middle management to the firm’s structure in order to operate efficiently. W.G. Beatty and brother Milton sensed that control of the firm was slipping through their fingers. W.G. in particular, once the epitome of modern management techniques, became increasingly controlling and hidebound as he grew older.

As it turned out, the expansion and profitability of the late 1920s would not last. The company fared better than most during the great depression, never ceasing production. But the signs of doom were already flashing in the fall of 1929 when the experimental and demonstration farm was still being set up. Beatty shares on the stock market began to fall a couple of months before the crash in October. Beatty shares were soon in free fall, and they remained depressed through the decade as sales plummeted.

One of the victims was the demonstration farm. The brothers retained the farm, but cut back drastically on expenditures that were necessary to make it an effective demonstration and sales facility.

The year 1929 was a key one for the Beatty company, with improvements to the water system, the new Fergus swimming pool, and the experimental farm. That year marked the end of a quarter century of spectacular growth and innovation for the firm, and the start of a 15-year stretch of retrenchment, and then war.

With the arrival of peace in 1945 appliance production would resume, but the economy and the mood in Fergus would be much altered. It is a story I intend to pick up at another time.


Stephen Thorning